The 2018 Houston Astros finished the year with the best record in franchise history at 103-59, passing a 1998 club that featured Hall of Famers Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Randy Johnson, all in their prime.
The 2018 squad swept through the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series only to fall in the Championship Series to the 108-game winning Boston Red Sox.
2018 SEASON RECAP
The Astros ended the season with the best starter and bullpen ERA in the majors, a feat that was supported by the league’s highest strikeout rate all around and the league’s best bullpen walk rate. Overall, Houston pitchers held opponents to a .215 batting average.
The offense was very good, though not as productive as the World Series winning 2017 club. They scored the sixth-most runs in the majors, with 797, and batted .255/.329/.425 overall.
The top players on the 2018 Houston Astros were:
In a way, that top 5 explains the performance of the 2018 Houston Astros overall in that it features three utterly dominant starting pitchers and only one dominant hitter in Alex Bregman.
On the offensive front, it is notable that 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve had a down year by his standards, having his “worst” year since 2015. This was due in large part to a nagging knee injury that visibly hampered him during the second half of the season, which ultimately turned out to be a painful-sounding avulsion fracture, which is when a tendon or ligament pulls off a piece of bone. Ouch. Altuve underwent surgery immediately following the ALCS.
The other big blow to the Astros’ offense came from shortstop Carlos Correa, who posted only 1.6 WAR due to back injuries, after two straight seasons of over 5 WAR. In the end, Correa missed 52 games of the season and batted a paltry .239/.323/.405, making him a below average major league starter.
The Astros did boast the second-fewest DL stints in the major leagues, but those who did miss time with injury included former All-Stars Altuve and Correa, plus starting catcher Brian McCann and All-Star starting pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.
In retrospect, given that the Astros were playing with arguably their two best offensive players injured for a large portion of the season, lost one of their best pitchers, and were playing Russian Roulette with the catcher position, their record-setting win total is doubly remarkable.
For the first time in a very long time, the Astros could be losing some good players to Free Agency this offseason.
Dallas Keuchel, LHP
Dallas Keuchel won the American League Cy Young Award in 2015, and was the Astros’ token lefty in the rotation this past season. Because of the nearly-unprecidented collective seasons by Justin Verlander, Gerritt Cole, Charlie Morton, and McCullers, Keuchel’s season was largely overlooked and under-appreciated by the masses and media.
In 205 innings pitched, Keuchel posted a 3.74 ERA and 3.69 FIP, leading to a 3.6 fWAR that ranked him as the 19th-best pitcher in the Major Leagues this year.
Keuchel will be 32 years old in 2019, and projects to earn around $20.6 MM/Y as a Free Agent this off-season. It is conceivable that the Astros will try to retain Keuchel in the rotation, since he will be one of the best available pitching Free Agents and being a left-hander will again help balance a righty-heavy staff.
However, there are indicators of caution as well. 2018 was the first fully healthy season Keuchel has pitched since 2015. His strikeout rate has dropped by four percentage points since last year, which could be a fluke or it could be the beginning of a trend. There has also been a theory floating that pitchers who throw an extreme amount of Sinkers might get hurt more than usual, and Keuchel certainly fits that bill. Over the past five seasons, no starting pitcher in baseball has a higher Ground Ball percentage than him.
Charlie Morton, RHP
Morton posted the best seasons of his career with the 2017 and 2018 Astros. He has suggested that he is not sure if he will continue playing after 2018, and also said that he would rather stay with Houston than test Free Agency. Those comments came in April, and so he can be forgiven if he changes his mind.
If he hits the market, even at age 35 he could command a good salary for a 1- or 2-year contract his average fastball velocity of 96.6 mph is top-10 among MLB starters and he pairs it with a back-breaking curveball that comes in almost 20 mph slower. He could lose three mph or more off of that fastball and still be a high-quality starting pitcher.
But Morton still (as he always has) comes with significant injury risk. The 167 innings he pitched in 2018 were the most he had thrown in a single season since 2011.
The Astros could do worse than offering Morton a $17.4MM qualifying offer, and at his age and stated career intentions, it seems likely that he would accept. His projected value is in line with that dollar value.
Evan Gattis, DH/C
Evan Gattis is a good-not-great batter who is limited to Designated Hitter during this age of importance placed on good defensive catching. He batted .226/.284/.452 with 25 home runs in what was the weakest offensive performance of his career.
Towards the end of the season, Gattis was largely replaced in the lineup by Tyler White. The Astros will not re-sign Gattis, who will likely find a home with a struggling American League club looking for a good clubhouse veteran who can bring some bat thump.
Good guy, best wishes, but the Astros will move on.
Tony Sipp, LHP
Tony Sipp had a resurgent 2018 after being written off by Astros fans following lousy 2016 and 2017 seasons. He posted an ERA of 1.86 and struck out 42 batters in his 39 innings of work.
Sipp is a good lefty reliever, but at age 35 and at his likely price tag, the Astros will move on.
The Astros will try to re-sign Maldonado due to a likely vacancy at both the Catcher 1 and Catcher 2 positions. Maldonado is a below-average major league hitter, but is one of the best defensive catchers alive, which the Astros love. At an expected market value of about $4M/Y, and with the Astros being a serious World Series contender, there will be mutual interest in a 3-year deal.
?Brian McCann, C
Speaking of catchers, it is unclear what the Astros plan to do with Brian McCann, for whom the club holds a $15 million option for 2019. The veteran catcher had clearly the worst season of his career in 2018, batting only .212/.301/.339 with the lowest wRC+ and fWAR of any season of his career, and played only 63 games.
McCann is still a decent defensive catcher, and managed league-average offense from 2015 through 2017.
One would forgive the Astros for picking up the option on McCann’s contract, but smarter money might be on the Astros trading or signing a younger/healthier catcher to a deal with a lower 2019 payroll hit.
Marwin Gonzalez, LF, 1B, SS, 2B, 3B
Last but certainly not least, the Astros would have had serious depth problems were it not for their Swiss Army knife Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez has provided a myriad of big moments during his career in Houston, including:
- Game-tying Home Run in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the 2017 World Series
- Monster 2018 American League Division Series
Those are only two of the biggest moments for the player affectionately nicknamed marWIN and #GameBreaker by the fans, and don’t include various walk-offs, defensive gems, and clutch grand slams that it felt like Gonzalez regularly provided.
Gonzalez was acquired by the Astros via trade during the Rule 5 draft in 2012, and has amassed 795 games with Houston since then, with 76 home runs and 292 RBI, appearing regularly at five different defensive positions. He provided invaluable depth to first a rebuilding club losing 100+ games a year, and then to a championship club winning 100+ games a year.
On the flip side, his batting line during that time was .264/.318/.419, making him slightly above-average for a major leaguer but fairly below-average for an everyday lineup guy. In 2018, he hit .247/.324/.409 with a 1.6 fWAR.
Although he is capable of playing multiple positions, no publicly-available measuring stick grades Gonzalez as even average at any position except Left Field, at which he is merely average-ish.
So Gonzalez is a fan-favorite who seems to be well-loved within the clubhouse, is versatile, is only 29 years old, but is pretty pedestrian on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. His current market value is approaching $18 million per year according to some sources, which is what one would expect to pay for a middle-of-the-order producer.
It is difficult to imagine the Astros entertaining paying Gonzalez his market value while they currently have two players on minimum contracts in White and Tony Kemp who together can cover four of Gonzalez’ positions, while Bregman can provide excellent shortstop defense on days that Correa is out.
This is where a baseball decision needs to trump the heart. Marwin’s days as a Houston Astro should be clearly over, though he should be remembered with fondness.
The Astros’ payroll topped $160 million in 2018, which was almost $25 million more than the average MLB club. Before arbitration raises and free agents, they have $78 million committed to the 2019 season.
With the potential departures of Keuchel, Morton, Sipp, Gonzalez, and McCann, the Astros could shed a large portion of their payroll, but that money would need to be spent somehow in replacing those key contributors.
Meanwhile, players who will be owed hefty raises in arbitration include:
- Superstar SP Gerritt Cole
- All Star SP McCullers
- All Star closer Roberto Osuna
- Should-be All Star reliever/starter Collin McHugh
- Near-elite relievers Brad Peacock, Ryan Pressly, Will Harris, and Chris Devenski
- Defensive wunderkind Jake Marisnick
- Budding superstar Carlos Correa
All told, the cash that will be doled out to those players will be a hefty chunk of change. MLB Trade Rumors projects the total amount of arbitration salaries for the Astros to be $48.1 million, which without any free agents or re-signing any outgoing players, puts the payroll close to $130 million.
When needing to replace 2/5 of the starting rotation, a catcher, and more, the Astros will be hard pressed to stay in the same $160 million neighborhood they were in last season.
Due to the Astros’ nebulous situation with television contracts and remaining debt to pay on the purchase of the franchise and the stadium, it is unknown how much higher the Astros would be willing to go, or if they would even be willing to repeat 2018’s spending that placed them as the 3rd-most expensive 25-man roster in MLB and 9th-most overall.
2019 ROSTER LOCKS
The following players are certainties to be regular contributors for the 2019 Astros. Notable players or ones with interesting story lines get detailed write-ups.
Jose Altuve, 2B
In a down year while suffering through what sounds like a painful injury, Altuve still finished with the 23rd-best fWAR and 20th-best wRC+ in major league baseball. His .315 batting average was 4th-highest in baseball, and his On-Base percentage was 13th.
Had he been healthy enough to play a full 162 games, Altuve would have reached 5.6 fWAR, 99 runs, 72 RBI, 15 home runs, and 20 stolen bases.
Still a down year compared to 2017 and 2016, it is reasonable and fair to chock up the drop from “superstar” to “almost-superstar” to his knee injury.
At only 29 years old in 2019, the Astros can expect at least his 2018 performance value, and can optimistically and realistically hope for better, particularly in stolen bases and extra base hits.
H-E Prediction 2019: .325/.395/.475 with 16 home runs and 28 stolen bases
Alex Bregman, 3B
MVP candidate Bregman batted .286/.394/.532 with 31 home runs and 10 stolen bases, amassing 7.6 fWAR and a 157 wRC+ that was fifth-highest in baseball. It is safe to say that the 24-year-old third baseman has “arrived”.
Amazingly, Bregman posted his epic season without the benefit of good luck on Balls in Play. His BABIP was 13 points lower than his career total, meaning that if he is able to achieve a season with GOOD luck on balls in play (as occasionally happens to all players once in a while), his performance during that season would be shocking.
There is no particular reason to doubt that Bregman’s play is unsustainable, and his clear and visible competitiveness makes him unlikely to rest on his laurels.
H-E Prediction 2019: .295/.400/.520 with 33 home runs with upside for more.
Carlos Correa, SS
Correa’s talent is too great to allow his 2018 lost season to be anything more than a blip. Assuming he can fully recover from the side and back injuries that plagued him all year (and there’s no reason to think he won’t considering that he just turned 24 and is ridiculously athletic), Correa can easily return to the MVP-candidate form that Astros fans have long expected him to be.
H-E Prediction 2019: .290/.380/.500, 35 home runs
Justin Verlander, SP
It’s a struggle to recall the last 35-year-old pitcher who has been as dominant as Verlander with the Houston Astros. The former Tiger put up a 2.52 ERA in 214 innings in 2019, blowing away 290 batters via strikeout and posting the lowest walk rate of his entire career.
Verlander is defying all conventional wisdom regarding pitching and aging by getting better with age while staying as healthy as a rock.
Until he proves otherwise, Verlander looks like the next Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson – a freak of nature who can continue dominance well into his late 30’s. The Astros should even consider a contract extension. He’s the type of pitcher you bet on being great at age 40.
H-E Prediction 2019: 3.20 ERA, 270 strikeouts in 200 innings
Gerrit Cole, SP
At barely 28, Cole should be another extension candidate for the Astros. After Houston instructed him to quit throwing his sinker and focus on his fastball/curve combination, Cole, already a former Cy Young candidate, put up a 2.88 ERA and struck out 276 batters over his 200 innings pitched.
This talent has always been there, evidenced by the fact he was selected first overall in the 2011 draft. Another dominant year can be expected.
H-E Prediction 2019: 3.00 ERA, 280 strikeouts
McHugh gets his own detailed write-up because he has an interesting position with the Astros. After earning Cy Young award votes in 2015 and losing a large portion of 2017 to nagging arm troubles, McHugh moved into the bullpen and became one of the best relievers in all of baseball, posting a 1.99 ERA and striking out 94 batters in 72 innings.
With the probable departures of Morton and Keuchel, McCullers’ injury uncertainty, and similar uncertainty around some prospect-y rotation candidates, McHugh is a likely candidate to re-join the rotation for at least a significant portion of the season. His stuff plays in either role, perhaps better than other bullpen/rotation candidates like Peacock, and he has proved he can be successful as a starter. He is also cheaper than Free Agents who can be expected to post similar ERAs as starting pitchers.
H-E Prediction 2019: 3.60 ERA, 150 innings split between rotation and bullpen
Roster showing Locks
SP: Justin Verlander
SP: Gerritt Cole
SP: Lance McCullers Jr
SP/RP: Collin McHugh
Closer: Roberto Osuna
RP: Brad Peacock
RP: Joe Smith
RP: Will Harris
RP: Hector Rondon
RP: Ryan Pressly
RP: Chris Devenski
Although there are some other bullpen names currently on the 40-man roster who figure to see time with the Astros in 2019, such as Josh James, Cionel Perez, and Framber Valdez, those I listed above are proven MLB relievers with very good track records, who are under contract, and so I’m projecting the eight relievers (including McHugh) to make the opening day roster.
Note that this bullpen has no lefties, which would ordinarily be concerning. However, as I’ve written previously, Devenski and Harris are two of the best pitchers alive at limiting damage from left handed batters, so the need for a LHP immediately during the season is debatable.
Regardless, it’s hard to envision any of the named relievers coming off of the Astros’ roster at the beginning of 2019.
The following players will almost certainly be on the 2019 Astros’ opening day roster, barring trades or surprising free agent signings.
Tyler White, DH, 1B, 3B
To be honest, it would be a shock if White wasn’t written in pen as the Astros’ everyday DH next season after batting .276/.354/.533 with 12 home runs in only 66 games last season. Perhaps I should have included him in the preceding section.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, White’s performance is sustainable and translates to a 30-ish home run season with a healthy on-base percentage.
So why call him a probable instead of a certainty? Perhaps it is because with Yuli Gurriel entrenched at first base, White’s utility as a defensive player is questionable. There’s enough of a chance that the Astros include White in a big trade this offseason that it keeps him in this section of the article.
But make no mistake – White is a very good MLB hitter and the Astros would have no fear of hitting him fifth or sixth in a championship lineup.
Tony Kemp, LF, 2B
There’s a nonzero chance that Kemp begins the season as the opening day Left Fielder, though he’s better cast as the replacement for Marwin Gonzalez as a guy who plays a lot but doesn’t have a permanent home.
Kemp, during his first extended time with the Astros, batted .263/.351/.392 in 2018, with 6 homers and 9 stolen bases.
While that doesn’t sound like much to a fan base used to the stat lines put up by the likes of Altuve and Bregman, in reality, Kemp’s 110 wRC+ is comparable to major leaguers like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jean Segura, Carlos Santana, Andrelton Simmons, and….Yuli Gurriel.
Like White, nothing in Kemp’s stat line indicates that he played over his head in 2018, and his excellent plate discipline and speed should help him maintain good on-base percentages throughout his career.
Good cheap depth is invaluable, and Kemp will likely be a fixture in Astros lineups throughout the next few seasons.
Josh James, RHP
James probably makes the roster, though in what capacity it’s hard to say. If McHugh goes into the rotation, James probably takes the last bullpen spot. But if McHugh stays in the bullpen, James could be the opening day fifth starter. Or maybe he’s back in AAA to be the “first up”. Or second or third, after looking at the AAA roster. It’s loaded.
James was a 34th round draft pick that nobody had heard of until correction of his sleep apnea turned him from a low-90’s “just a guy” pitcher into a 100-mph flame thrower that mowed his way from double A all the way into the majors on one of baseball’s best teams. Whoo!
James posted a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings with the Astros this season, including three starts, and stuck out 29 batters against only 7 walks. That is…impressive, to say the least. Yes, those stats came with a low BABIP and partially out of the pen, but there is no way to criticize.
If his 2018 is for real, James could be on the same level as Cole and Verlander. But that’s an awful stretch to hang on anybody as a projection, so I’m taking an optimistic “wait and see” on James, to see how the league adjusts to him. But there’s no reason for him to be in the minors anymore.
However, he has minor league options, and so may have to bide his time a bit.
There are few superlatives that can be used to describe how miserable Marisnick was at the plate during the first half of the season before he was demoted in favor of somebody who wasn’t awful. However, he salvaged his season with a 2nd-half .263/.368/.509 (only 25 games) that should leave fans with one of those “what the hell?” feelings.
Who knows what to make of Marisnick as a hitter? But as a fielder in the outfield, he is a defender par excellence, and invaluable as a late inning replacement, or as a starter behind a flyball-prone pitcher. He’s in, unless the Astros can acquire somebody who can hit AND field.
A NOTE ABOUT TRANSACTIONS
The Astros will have options headed into 2019, alluded to above and explored in detail below. But taking a step back to examine resources and typical modus operandi* is worth it before projecting realistic transactions that the Astros could execute this off-season.
*for those keeping track at home, that’s a french-borrowed and a latin-borrowed idiom in two straight paragraphs. Don’t say I don’t try to elevate your literary game.
For the past several seasons, the Astros have stuck largely to the following transaction types:
- An absolute-zero policy against trading their very top prospects, and promoting those prospects aggressively
- Signing or claiming unheralded players without breaking the bank
- Pulling off whopper trades
Examples of the first type are obvious: Correa, Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and Forrest Whitley have all been ranked as Top 10 major league prospects at one point or another. McCullers was ranked in the 30’s before his promotion at age 21, and would have easily reached the top 10 had he stayed in the minors longer.
The Astros always seem interested in trade discussions and their top prospects are always rumored to be asked for. But the Astros have never traded them. Not one. Even Derek Fisher was rumored to be “off-limits”, as has current 1B prospect Yordan Alvarez.
Of the second type of transactions, the Astros salvaged McHugh and Morton off of the proverbial scrap heap, made slight tweaks in their approaches, and turned them into All-Star caliber players. They signed Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel to friendly contracts compared to others who play similar positions, and yet get more consistent production.
Compare to Jason Heyward and Chris Davis, for examples of the types of contracts the Astros avoid. Signing players like Reddick and Gurriel are smart in that their performance are often no worse than 90% of players paid three times as much (or better, in the case of Davis, who was one of the worst hitters in the majors last year, and on a $161 million contract), and their contracts are priced so that if the Astros absolutely had to move on mid-contract, the hit to their books would be small and short.
The Astros also made sneaky-smart investments in their bullpen with Rondon and Smith, who were both quietly excellent in 2018, but were nowhere near the price tags of some of their contemporaries on the open market.
Of the third type of transaction, the Astros certainly have made minor trades like they did when acquiring Maldonado last season, but they have shown a willingness to “go for it” with gusto on the trade market. Verlander and Cole were both acquired via trade, as were Osuna, Gattis, and McCann.
Lastly, there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to transactions this off-season, and that is that the 2020 Astros starting rotation will be decimated, with the departure of both Verlander and Cole. It’s a wild scenario, but the Astros could decide that this is the off-season to rectify that issue and either sign of trade for more than one starting pitcher who will be under their control for three or four seasons. If so, it really opens up the possibilities, and fans could see, for the first time, some top prospects changing hands.
Before exploring the trade market and free agency to fill vacancies, there are a few internal candidates that need to be seriously considered for playing time next season.
First, a pair of outfielders that could rightfully fill the opening day … opening … in left field. Kyle Tucker, as noted above, is a Top 10 national prospect. At AAA last season at age 21 he batted .332/.400/.590 with 24 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 100 games. Unfortunately once reaching the majors, he struggled hugely, batting .141/.236/.203 with a .176 BABIP and 0 homers in 28 games. EEEEYuck!
Likewise, Derek Fisher wrapped up his third season in triple A, at just barely 25 years old, and continues to provide a tantalizing OBP/power/speed combination that is reminiscent of George Springer. With Tucker awaiting, perhaps Fisher’s best value is as a trade chip, as Colin Moran was last season when he was traded in exchange for Cole. But Fisher still has rightful upside of his own and should not be dismissed as a candidate.
Two other 25-year-olds who have owned Triple A but struggled in the majors have a less clear path to the major leagues. J.D. Davis and A.J. Reed both realistically are first baseman, though Davis can play third in a pinch. But both are blocked with the Astros.
Davis played in 42 games for the Astros last season, batting .175/.248/.223, but he hit .342/.406/.583 during his first full Triple A season in 2018. Reed has been at AAA since 2016 (and has destroyed it), but has only received a total of 9 plate appearances since hitting .164/.270/.262 as a 23-year-old MLB rookie in 2016.
It’s fair to say both of those guys deserve another shot somewhere, but it is difficult to see them suiting up for Houston barring several injuries (God forbit!)
The pitching spots are even more fun to discuss. Along with James, who hopefully will see large swaths of time in the majors next season, several minor league pitchers have the ability and readiness to pitch in the majors.
Top prospect Forrest Whitley will not start the season in the majors, and the Astros will carefully monitor his innings count in 2019 due to a 2018 season that was largely lost to injury and suspension. But he is still universally considered the best pitching prospect in the nation, and so needs to be discussed as a real possibility to take over a rotation spot at some point.
But he’s not the only one. Before there was a Whitley, there was a Francis Martes. Martes, a right-hander, was a Top 50 national prospect as well before making his debut with the 2017 Astros out of the bullpen. He struggled a bit, and missed most of 2018 with various injuries, but still retains high upside if he can pull it all back together, and if he can return from Tommy John surgery healthy at the end of 2019.
Not to be overlooked, other young pitchers are ready for the majors but are without a clear spot. All of these guys profile as mid- to back-of-rotation starters (good ones), or else good bullpen arms. Rogelio Armenteros pitched a 3.74 ERA in AAA last season, but that was misleading due to a couple of lopsided starts. From June 10th onward, a spate of twelve starts, Armenteros held a 2.95 ERA with 75 strikeouts and 29 walks in 64 innings pitched. Cy Sneed had a 3.83 ERA in 26 games with the AAA grizzlies. Brendan McCurry, a reliever, struck out 73 batters in 63 innings. Dean Deetz had a 0.79 ERA in 34 innings, striking out 50 batters before reaching the majors in September. Cionel Perez, a 22-year-old lefty, skipped triple A entirely, reached Houston, pitched a 3.97 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning, before going back down to triple A to finish off the season.
Where are these major-league ready guys going to play? Who knows. Perhaps for somebody else.
POSSIBLE FREE AGENTS
It’s ultimately pointless but still fun to try to guess what the Astros will do with their roster. So the rest of this article is dedicated to pure speculation. Wherever possible, the speculation below will fit the Astros MO as described above, and it will not allow silly-unrealistic payrolls to be the outcome. So, no, the Astros will not sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Tyson Ross, SP
Tyson Ross fits the bill in that he is overcoming a couple of injury-plagued seasons (150 IP in 2018, but only 54 total from 2016-2017). He reaches the mid-90’s on occasion and he also boasts an extremely high average spin rate, 20th highest in the majors. His slider averages 2,662 RPM and his cutter comes in at 2,547. For comparison, Morton’s cutter is 2,517.
He could probably be talked into a shorter contract with a World Series contender that will allow him to re-establish himself as the top-tier pitcher that he used to be.
Lonnie Chisenhall, OF, 3B
Lonnie Chisenhall could be a sneaky useful player who wouldn’t necessarily block a surging outfield prospect. A third-baseman turned outfielder (all three outfield spots), who has played a smattering of first base, his positional flexibility would certainly be appealing to a team that values depth.
Additionally, Chisenhall bats left-handed, a rarity in the Astros’ lineup, and in fact was used entirely as a platoon hitter against right-handed pitchers in 2018, batting .325/.395/.455 in 87 plate appearances. As recently as 2017, he belted 12 home runs in only 82 games, and has posted back-to-back seasons of the highest walk rates of his career. When not playing outfield, he is a better option at third base than either White or Gurriel on days when Bregman moves to short stop to give Correa a rest.
Jed Lowrie, INF
I mean, why not? He would be a good replacement for Gonzalez as a super-utility infielder, and at 35, will be cheaper. He routinely carries a high on base percentage and has decent power.
His preference will likely be as a starter, but if the options aren’t to his liking, he might opt for 450 at bats with a contender for a season.
Brian Dozier, 2B
It’s a long shot because his position is blocked by the 2017 AL MVP, but after a rotten season, Dozier will be looking for a one year deal to rebuild his value. Yes, he batted .215/.305/.391 last season, but in the three seasons prior he mashed 104 home runs and stole 46 bases while carrying a a wRC+ well over 120. There could be mutual interest as a primary DH who occasionally fills in at 2nd or 1st base.
A.J. Pollock, CF
If the Astros were truly unsure about Tucker and Fisher, and if they wanted to step out of their comfort zone and sign a difference-making starter, A.J. Pollock could fit the mold. At an estimated annual contract value of $11M/Y (over what would probably be a 4 year deal minimum), Pollock would be a permanent upgrade to the outfield in both offense and defense.
A regular visitor to the DL, Pollock has nonetheless played above-average center field and has had seasons of greatness in the past (2014 and 2015). In 2018, Pollock hit .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 113 games, with a BABIP and thus OBP that was a far cry below his norm. A prime bounce-back candidate with high upside, an outfield of Springer, Reddick, and Pollock would be ball vacuums. Pollock would make for an exciting top-of-the order hitter.
Almost certainly, the Astros will be acquiring a veteran catcher, and there are several decent ones available on the market this off-season. Using Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (adjusted for catchers), Grandal, Ramos, and Maldonado are the only ones that qualified as above-average defensively last season, but catching statistics are notoriously fluctuatable. Fluctual. Fluctuatious. Whatever.
This is much more difficult to project, because the Astros could target literally anybody. For the record, I looked. The Astros should not try to trade for anybody from the Orioles’ roster. I mean, yuck.
J.T. Realmuto, C, Marlins
For the past season, rumor said that J.T. Realmuto‘s price tag in trade was ridiculously high. Maybe after a 63-98 season, the Marlins can be persuaded otherwise. Realmuto is a good-not-great defensive catcher (which is nothing to sneeze at), but he bears a potent bat and two years of arbitration remaining.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays
Stroman would be a 1-year rental, and shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. The Blue Jays should have plenty of suitors for the right-hander. The Astros should not overpay, but they should be inquiring.
Justin Smoak, 1B/DH, Blue Jays
Personally, I believe in White and think he would make a well-above-average major league Designated Hitter. But I won’t pretend to know the Astros’ mind, and their data is better than mine. If for some reason, they aren’t “buying” on White and would prefer him in a reserve role, Smoak could be acquired from the Blue Jays.
Smoak has only 2019 remaining on his contract, and is only one year removed from a 38-homer whopper of a season. Last year was a down year in 147 games, but he would fit nicely into the DH role, as-needed.
Steven Matz, RHP, Mets
OK, look. The Mets are not going to trade Jacob DeGrom or Noah Syndergaard. It doesn’t matter what their record was last year (77-85). The Mets play in an extraordinarily weak division, the Nationals are going to be worse, and New York has the best pitching staff in that division. They are going to be buyers, not sellers. That said, with a potential New York payroll and some interest in Free Agency, they could decide to part with Matz, an injury prone but talented starter, in order to shore up other areas of need. Matz has three years of team control left and tantalizing talent, and the Astros should inquire.
Derek Dietrich, 2B, 3B, OF, Marlins
Back to the Marlins, Dietrich is a slightly above-average batter who plays several different positions and has some pop in his bat. Sound familiar? His bat is a little better than Gonzalez over the course of their careers, and Dietrich is a strict left-handed hitter. Could be a good match, and not too pricey.
Yeah, probably not. Profar and DeShields are included here because they could be good fits with the Astros, but it’s hard to squint and imagine Houston and Dallas making any sort of trades.
Eugenio Suarez, 3B, Reds
This is incredibly far-fetched, but the disastrous Reds sooner or later need to realize that a complete tear-down and rebuild is in order, and Suarez is their best trade piece. The Third Baseman would need to move to Left Field with the Astros (presumably not a huge challenge), but after batting .283/.366/.526 last season he could arguably be the three-hole hitter on a championship club.
He would cost a fortune. Undoubtedly Tucker plus more. But in this case, at barely 27 years old and under contract through 2025, this is the type of batter a club should break the bank for, and then find a spot for him to play.
A boy can dream.
Luis Castillo, SP, Reds
Speaking of pricey Cincinnatians, if the Astros were willing to part with a couple of their good pitching prospects and a ML-ready bat or two, perhaps they could pry away the 25-year-old starting pitcher Castillo from the Reds. Castillo’s fastball reaches almost 98 miles per hour on average, and would be an asset in the rotation.
The Pirates had another bad year, but they’re an up-and-coming club, so it’s not clear they’d trade any of their starting pitching. But it’s possible they could swing another deal similar to the one sending Cole to the Astros last season, trading away one of their top of rotation starters for some good major league ready talent, of which the Astros have plenty. It worked out for them last season – Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove look to be good major league players, Michael Feliz still has tremendous upside in the bullpen (or rotation, if they’re feeling brave). With a competetive division at the top, the Pirates could decide that another year of rebuilding is their best option. Either of these starters would fit in extraordinarily well just behind Verlander and Cole, and would remain on the roster past 2019, which the Astros will sorely need.
Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
With one year remaining on his contract and playing for a pitiful club, Bumgarner could be a hot commodity on this off-seasons’ trade market. Buyer beware though. The four-time All Star hasn’t pitched more than 130 innings since 2016, has lost a couple ticks on his fastball, and has seen his strikeout rate steadily decrease for the last three seasons. He’s still an elite pitcher.
Robbie Ray, SP, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks don’t seem like likely sellers, as like the Mets they play in a weak division and hung around near the top most of the season. But if the Astros wanted to go for gusto, they could target Ray, a strikeout monster coming off an injury-recovery season, who has at least two years of team control remaining and just finished his age-26 season.
As noted, the Astros could try to solve some of their 2020 rotation problems this offseason. If so, things could get really wild. Perhaps they go hard after Max Scherzer, under contract through 2021 and playing for a fading Nationals club. Or Stephen Strasburg, under contract through 2023. Be prepared to pay a hefty price. How much would the Twins’ Jose Berrios cost, with four years of club control remaining? Do the Astros think they could acquire and fix one of the White Sox’ ridiculously talented but so far non-productive starters: Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon, or Carson Fulmer?
FUN WITH ROSTERS
To wrap this up, here are some fun speculative rosters based on all of the discussion above. I have presented an ultra-conservative possible roster, a realistic possible roster, and a “let’s go crazy” roster.
In the conservative scenario, the Astros bring back their 2018 squad, with the exception of Keuchel. (Full disclosure: I would be in favor of Keuchel’s return, but I consider it unlikely).
Yes, this is a fully right-handed pitching staff, which might present some issues down the road, but this club would be so dang good just with the return to form of both Altuve and Correa, that it really wouldn’t matter very much, particularly with a couple of the relievers being so effective against lefty batters anyway.
The key takeaways here are McHugh moving back into the rotation, perhaps in some sort of a tandem with James, who might get first crack in the rotation with McHugh staying in the pen.
The biggest risk in this lineup is penciling in Tucker in Left Field. I could be comfortable (temporarilty) with Kemp starting in left field as well, and as you’ll see I have him doing just that in the next scenario, and likewise I wouldn’t be opposed to Derek Fisher getting another crack at the spot before cutting bait.
In this scenario, the Astros bring back both Maldonado and Morton, both moves of which would be defensible and even laudable.
Tyler White owns the DH position.
Plausible Alternate Scenario
EDIT: It was brought to my attention that Garrett Richards just had Tommy John Surgery. Replace him in this scenario with Tyson Ross or Charlie Morton, as you will.
The big differences between this Plausible Scenario and the previous one are at Catcher, Starting Pitcher, and the Bench.
Here I have the Astros signing Ross to at least a one-year deal (more likely 2- or 3-year deal, with incentives for innings pitched that would make him happy), and also trading for the Blue Jays’ Stroman, and trying to extend him to a longer contract while they’re at it.
Their big money (which is not spent on Morton, in this case) would be spent on Yasmani Grandal, a good hitting catcher with an elite defensive reputation. Many suitors will be chasing Grandal this offseason, but I believe a World Series champ in need of a starting catcher could put together the strongest offer. The only question is whether or not he will come with a declined qualifying offer that will cost the Astros additional assets in sacrifice.
On the bench, I have the Astros acquiring two strong veterans who are good OBP candidates, play multiple positions, and can be interchangeable with most non-superstar players on the field without a noticeable drop-off in performance.
Edit: Ross or Morton, not Richards. Or else trading for Bumgarner, though I doubt the Astros would be able to nab both Archer and Bumgarner via trade.
I can’t realistically bring myself to think that the Reds will trade Suarez, and so I passed on that idea to at least maintain a smidgen of realism.
In this case, the Astros spend a bit more money by acquiring A.J. Pollock in addition to Grandal, giving them an elite defensive outfield with pop and speed. Chisenhall is still on the bench, to play corner outfield on days off and occasional corner infield (no need for a backup CF with both Pollock and Springer on the roster, but Chisenhall has been known to play that position, too).
Here we still have the Astros signing Ross, but in addition to that, they pulled off a blockbuster to acquire Archer from the Pirates.
Lastly, the Astros have also traded for Smoak. In this situation, Smoak and White will time share, with each getting 450+ At Bats, as White will likely find himself subbing for Gurriel often to keep him in the lineup. Because after all, sooner or later, Gurriel’s complete lack of walks and mid-30s age will catch up to him. White and Smoak are better, anyway, which could move Gurriel to the bench. Either way, this move likely adds 30 home runs to an already potent lineup, in addition to Pollock’s and Grandal’s contributions. Yummy.
In this lineup, Josh Reddick would find himself hitting ninth. I love it. Let’s do it.